Photos by Erica Browne Grivas
Crocuses are critter-resistant and naturalize easily.
Photos by Erica Browne Grivas Crocuses are critter-resistant and naturalize easily.

Let’s face it. Lawns do nothing for the environment, and as grown typically with herbicides and inorganic fertilizers, both weaken and harm it. If your lawn still feels useful, you may not be ready to “lose your lawn” altogether or convert it to a wildflower meadow. If so, consider this beautiful interim step, inviting pollinators and reducing lawn impacts — a flowering bulb lawn.

What makes a bulb lawn a perfect transition project is that it’s a seasonal event, running from early to late spring. Imagine a shifting tapestry of flowers alive with birds, bees and butterflies. There is one compromise, however. For your bulbs to multiply and prosper, you’ll need to leave the dying leaves intact until they yellow or wither. This signals another kind of transition, this time a mental one for the gardener — welcoming a little bit of wild into your lawn.

As your bulb lawn retreats for the year, it will look messier than it did. This shift can take a minute to accept. Garden writer Margaret Roach noted in a recent podcast episode the tension that gardeners skirt between aesthetics and environmental health. For centuries, the ruling aesthetic for lawns has been a velvet rug that exists to set off the trees and borders around. Douglas Tallamy, author of “Nature’s Best Hope,” suggests “cues of care” can help bridge this line. These cues might include mowing a swath through taller grass, or a path around it, and keeping the edges trimmed. Such signs highlight the hand of the gardener, reassuring viewers that this is a cared-for space. 

This project is inspired by horticulture power couple Dan Benarcik of the Chanticleer Foundation and Peggy Anne Montgomery, of flowerbulbs.com, who created one in their home this fall.

They chose a selection of shorter-growing bulbs that are pollinator-friendly, tend to perennialize, expanding each year, and are mostly critter-resistant. They should also help prevent weeds as they become established. Because their bloom times are staggered, they can be planted closely, with the smallest in the same holes.

Crocus and dwarf Iris reticulata start the show in late winter, followed in early spring by Chionodoxa lucilliae (glory of the snow), long-blooming narcissus “Tete a Tete” and Ipheion uniflorum (starflower).

Benarcik and Montgomery also used Scilla siberica, but that can become invasive here, so I’d avoid that. An alternate might be white-flowered Tulipa turkestanica, whose yellow eye would set off the “Tete a Tete” daffodils.

In mid-spring, another species or botanical tulip, yellow Tulipa sylvestris and blue or white Muscari armenicum are the grand finale. 

For this project, you’ll need as many bulbs as you can lavish upon the project, some bulb fertilizer and a bulb auger or some digging helpers.

Mark out the area with a hose or white spray paint, making sure to leave access paths around or through. Plant thickly, digging holes about three times the height of the bulb, so for the largest, the 2-foot daffodils, you’d dig 6 inches deep.

Montgomery suggests adding a teaspoon of bulb fertilizer to each hole and keeping the tiniest bulbs separate so they can be layered on top of the larger bulbs before filling the hole. Don’t worry about which end is up when planting — the bulb knows what to do.

Benarcik took the chance to top-dress the disturbed lawn with compost and lawn seed. One note for herbicide users — skip broad-spectrum pre-emergent herbicides — as they will damage your bulbs. 

If you are concerned about digging animals attracted to the fresh earth or the tulips, watering down the planting area will make the area less appealing. For sterner measures, lay down chicken wire on the top of the area until the bulbs emerge.

For full details and a visual of the process, check out the video at youtube.com/watch?v=TJyzYNNayVA.

Your design can follow your lawn’s shape, or you can make it more artistic, like creating your initials, or go all-out for a seasonal labyrinth. It might help to mark the area until the bulbs come up. Just remember not to mow until the bulb foliage has died down, and you’ll have a magical flower carpet that is more beautiful and vibrant every year, while helping the birds and the bees.